What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

by | Oct 4, 2022

what is cognitive behavioral therapy

Your thoughts directly influence our actions in ways that might surprise you. Tapping into the “why” of your behaviors is a major part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is one of the leading forms of psychotherapy for a wide range of disorders, including anxiety conditions, depression, and bipolar disorder. 

Therapists use CBT to help people understand the connection between what they think and how they feel.

You don’t have to attend therapy regularly to benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, though. In fact, one of the great things about CBT is that it is an effective self-help tool with plenty of skills you can start learning right away. 

If you’ve ever looked into how to treat anxiety or the best therapy for depression, you’ve likely heard of cognitive behavioral therapy. But what exactly does it mean, and how does CBT work? 

In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into cognitive behavioral therapy, its benefits, and some exercises you can try. 

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive means relating to cognition (thinking). Behavioral refers to our actions. So, cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of therapy that explores the relationship between thoughts and actions. 

Have you ever struggled with a bad habit, or wondered why you keep doing the same actions, even when they don’t make you feel good? 

CBT may be able to help you break free from those patterns. 

The Scope of CBT

Cognitive behavior therapy does not dive into your childhood as much as traditional psychoanalysis. It isn’t concerned with your past as much as your present, which many people love it for.

Rather than focus on all the things leading up to the moment, CBT examines your current actions and emotions. Which ones are causing you the most struggles and discomfort in your life? Those are the ones you need to change to start living a happier existence. 

Most CBT therapy is short-term, usually no longer than 20 weeks.

The goal is to help you achieve three things:

  • Identification of your unhelpful thoughts 
  • The effects these thoughts have on your emotions and behavior
  • Alternative ways of thinking that lead to better actions and desirable outcomes

How CBT Works

At the core of CBT lie cognitive distortions. These are unhelpful and inaccurate thought tendencies that alter our perception. Someone with cognitive distortions interprets information differently. It’s like looking at yourself and the world through a foggy lens. 

Instead of seeing the clear picture, you get used to the marred image. The result leads to a different view on things that often enforce a negative idea about yourself. 

Cognitive Elements of CBT

There are three main cognitive components that CBT addresses:

  1. Negative Core Beliefs
  2. Dysfunctional Thoughts
  3. Negative Automatic Thinking

Negative core beliefs are beliefs that you pick up early in life. They shape the way you see yourself and the world. These beliefs are what support a lot of mental health struggles, because they keep you locked into a limited, damaging worldview.

Examples of negative core beliefs include:

  • I am worthless
  • I am unlovable
  • I am stupid
  • I can’t do anything right
  • Nothing works out for me
  • The world is unsafe
  • People are untrustworthy
  • Everyone has ulterior motives

Do you notice that these thoughts are all extremely negative and definitive? They don’t leave any room for exceptions. 

Someone who thinks they’re worthless will likely always experience life through that lens. When something bad happens to them, they’re less likely to see it as a matter of poor circumstances or a stroke of bad luck. Instead, they’ll see it as confirmation that they really don’t deserve anything good. 

Dysfunctional thoughts arise from negative core beliefs. They’re more flexible, but they still continue to support unhelpful or damaging ideas about yourself. For example, you might think that you’re unlovable, so a dysfunctional thought is, “I have to do things that will make people love me.” 

These dysfunctional thoughts can operate on a more subconscious level, but they actually influence everything you do.

A goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to build awareness of dysfunctional thoughts and the patterns that shape them (cognitive distortions). 

Negative automatic thoughts are habitual, destructive thought patterns that cause you to repeat a loop of unhealthy actions. Most automatic thoughts are tied to a trigger, which is something that starts a near-instant reaction.

Triggers are things that you can’t control. Any time they arise, you feel more anxious, depressed, or bad about yourself. 

CBT helps you identify automatic thoughts, their respective triggers, and healthier ways to cope with both.

What are cognitive distortions in CBT? 

Cognitive distortions are irrational ways of thinking. Irrational can sound pretty judgmental, but when you get to the core of these distortions, you’ll see why that term applies.

Although we want to believe every thought we have, the fact is that they simply aren’t always true. A lot of our thoughts are subjective, based on our beliefs,  rather than objective, or based in reality. 

Before we look at the list of cognitive distortions, it’s important to mention that there’s nothing wrong with you for having any of these. They’re normal, and they affect far more people than we’ll ever truly know.

Rather than thinking negatively of yourself for struggling with negative thoughts, shift your focus. Remind yourself that it’s great to be so aware, and that awareness is the first step toward positive change.

The Most Common Cognitive Distortions

All-or-Nothing/Black-and-White Thinking

This thinking pattern is characterized by seeing life in extremes. Everything is “all good” or “all bad”, and you don’t leave much room for variations. A person might see themselves as “worthless” or feel like they have to be “perfect”. If they make a mistake, they feel they’re “horrible” rather than just a human being who isn’t right all the time.


You may see things as being proof of other beliefs. For example, after a bad breakup, you think that all future relationships are doomed to fail. 

Disqualifying the Positive

You may have a tendency to look for proof of the negative and countless reasons to discount the positive. Someone could compliment your idea at work, only for you to say that someone else really had a better idea, or you were just inspired by something someone else said. 

Fortune Telling

You don’t accept an invitation to a party because you know no one will talk to you. You reject a job interview offer because you know you won’t get it anyway. These examples of predicting the future, aka fortune telling, limit your opportunity and stop you from experiencing good things in your life. 

Mind Reading

You assume why people do things, even if their behavior says the opposite. For example, if you see someone staring at you in public, you may automatically assume they’re thinking something awful about you. If a friend doesn’t answer a text message, you jump to the conclusion that they actually don’t like you.

There are many other cognitive distortions that can alter your perception and, ultimately, hinder your happiness. Discovering yours is a process that can help you start becoming more open-minded and forgiving to yourself.

Who CBT Is Good For

Anyone who struggles with negative thoughts can try CBT. It’s been proven to be especially helpful among people with anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and in the professional treatment of substance use disorders.

Try It Yourself

– Start keeping a journal of your thoughts throughout the day. After 2 or 3 days, review the list and see how many are negative, and how many may have been influenced by negative core beliefs or cognitive distortions.

Use this worksheet to understand your actions and develop healthy coping skills.

– Practice rehearsing events that you usually dread. Imagine an alternative outcome — one where you act confidently, happily, and enjoy the experience. How do your thoughts and behaviors usually impede this scenario? 

– Look for a therapist who specializes in CBT. They can help you come up with a personalized plan. If you have any mental illness, this is the best approach. 

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